Hawke’s Flight, Chapter Three
This was the first complicated magic I’d ever seen, and I wasn’t exactly paying attention. You ever walk two hundred miles in a night? Look, as far as I can tell what happened was that we walked after Flemeth, as if on a path, and it seemed to take forever, and then we were somewhere else. Like a dream. Exactly like a dream. Time and distance do funny things, in a dream. I could feel the power, though, around us and under us and through us in a way that made my bones itch. It was like being in a boat carried by a great dark wave, and if I hadn’t already had my fill of fear that day I suppose I’d have found it terrifying.
So Flemeth got us by magic to Gwaren, pretty much right across the kingdom, where almost the last of our money bought us passage away from doomed Ferelden. She’d had words with my brother before we parted ways, about which all he would say was that it was an errand – but he did wear that ring she gave him, wore it always, not even removing it to bathe.
He wore it on his ring finger, like a merchant or something, and that at least let me claim to be his wife – I don’t know, maybe I was being silly, but making Tobias rather than Mum play head-of-household seemed sensible. Not, perhaps, that my scrawny five-foot-ten joker of a brother would deter any sort of threat that wouldn’t be fazed by Aveline the sergeant-at-arms.
And while Mum was sort-of withdrawn and quiet, and I wasn’t much better, Tobias was smiling at least, but it was all on the outside. He hadn’t let his guard down one minute since – well, come to think of it – since Dad told us to leave him behind. I suppose it was all sinking in, both what he’d done and what he had in front of him. Although it was Aveline for whom I was most worried. I know that I didn’t know her at all, but usually I can get some kind of read on a person: from her there was almost nothing, or nothing good.
One might have thought she’d have left us at Gwaren – the teyrn’s army were recruiting – but she shook her head and said she’d rather not be on her own, and who am I to judge. And what did it say, that of her only friends in the world, it seemed that she was well on her way to teaching herself to hate one?
Tobias wasn’t helping. If he’d stood up for himself, if he’d turned around and snapped at her, if he’d grabbed her by the shoulders like I was tempted to do and asked at the top of his voice what he was bloody supposed to do, then yes, she’d have beaten the everliving tar out of him. But it would have let the anger out. It would have let her do something about her hurt, when a blind person could see it was building up inside her like a festering boil. And he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t meet her eyes. He was clearly haunted by what happened. He paid her passage on the boat without question, and he took the silver she wordlessly handed him when her eyes said don’t you do one thing for me. All she wanted was to hate him, and in being clearly unhateable my brother was making her hate herself.
I, meanwhile, stuck to hating more reasonable things. Like sailors. The first one to decide to investigate what shape I was under my tunic got a dazzling smile and told he couldn’t afford me; that got the idiot to produce his purse, and if Aveline and her hard eyes hadn’t been right there then I suspect bad things would’ve happened. The next one got a slap, and when he laughed and caught my wrist I’d have broken his finger if a clearly armed Tobias hadn’t got there quicker and made the problem go away.
Or the sea. We’d decided on Kirkwall as a destination – Mum’s family are nobility there, House Amell they are, and while she had somewhat eloped two decades ago, there’s an old saw about blood and water. I imagined myself a housemaid, compared it to a farmer’s daughter and decided I could live with that. But the passage – listen, I know what people say about the beauty of the sea, but I know what I saw. It’s duller than ditchwater except when it’s oppressively terrifying, it’s either burning hot or freezing cold the whole time, and in every weather you can imagine it stinks. And did I mention the rain? Or the salt? Or the food? Or the dark, below decks or at night, and can you imagine what would have happened if I’d summoned myself a nightlight in a hold full of frightened refugees? I hate the sea.
And there were the dreams. Typically, when I sleep, I build myself a little house. It has white walls and a pink door and it’s ridiculously twee and girlish and there are none of the cares of the world and it’s mine. And I grow flowers, roses and the like. Sometimes there are visitors, visitors bearing dreams. I always serve them tea. If they drink, I know they mean me no ill, and they can entertain me. If they do not drink, I burn them to ash and I sweep the ash out of my little bit of the Fade. It’s just this little foible I have.
There was a lot of ash, on that journey, and oftentimes I found myself doubting that the dreams of the sea and of the place that I was going even liked tea. But a poor mage I’d be if I paid attention to an idea I had in a dream. Tea or nothing, I’m afraid, and very little tea was drunk at all, and less the closer we got to Kirkwall. So I didn’t dream, not really, and sometimes I woke with ash under my fingernails or under my tongue. But I suppose the alternative would have been worse.
Mother, when she could be encouraged to speak at all, told stories of Kirkwall, of the place we were going. A port-city, a city-state, a little outcropping of proper civilisation on the edge of the Free Marches, or that’s how she painted it. Like everything else in this world that’s lasted, it was built by the Tevinters before the Maker’s Bride came along and freed their slaves and broke their power. Built with magic, it was: the magisters decided that this craggy and storm-lashed bit of coast should have a deepwater port, and so they stretched out their hands and imposed new shapes upon the very rock, carving deep channels and great sheer cliffs, a deepwater harbour, a terraced city after the fashion of their home.
And the thing about Kirkwall, the thing that strikes every foreigner, the thing which made us gawp like idiots as we sailed between the great carven figures either side of the harbour gate, is that every wall, every building, every little alley, every single thing the Tevinters built here is covered in their art. If ever any citizen of any nation of the world should doubt what it was that founded the wealth of the Tevinters? They should come, they should look for even a single hour upon the city of Kirkwall. Because the figures either side of the harbour gate are shackled, they are chained, the glances that they shoot at the horizon are not the noble lord’s proud declaration of chivalry or the prosperous cityman’s complacent assertion of prosperity; they envy the horizon and they hate it, in their way, for they are not free.
I would become accustomed to it, in time. But right then? That day, as the ship brought us into Kirkwall Harbour, to the island I later found out was named the Gallows? It felt like we had left one circle of Hell only to enter another. For every statue in the lower wards of Kirkwall is chained. Every image incised upon those walls depicts obedience, servitude, submission, restraint. Kirkwall was the nexus of the whole of the Tevinters’ trade in slaves by sea. And should anyone dare to raise their eye to the horizon, say the walls, the boot shall be placed upon their neck and it shall grind their face once more into the unfeeling stone.
“Nice place, this.” My brother’s eyes weren’t smiling as he stepped down off the gangplank, as he surveyed the sad little crowd arrayed around the docks of Gallows Island in various poses of despondency. (Look, I’m sorry. It’s the public art. It does things to the mind.) “I can hardly even feel the burning desire to be somewhere less awful.”
Our mother shot him the glance you reserve for fools, madmen and Tobias. “Let me do the talking. Kirkwall isn’t like Ferelden – if they’re keeping refugees on the docks it’s not out of spite.”
“Lack of kickbacks, more likely,” said Aveline with a disparaging glance at the nearest guard. “If this city pays all its guards enough that they can dress like that, I’m in the wrong profession.”
Mum nodded. “Regrettable, but you’re probably right. But if my brother’s name alone won’t do it, his pockets will. He was the one who understood me, back in the day; it was Father who cut me off, and Father died shortly before the twins were born.” And okay: being here in Kirkwall was good for one thing, at least. It was putting straightness into my mother’s backbone and a light into her eye that I hadn’t seen since we left Lothering. “We’ll need to speak with the officer: if we go to one of the grunts they’re likely to want cash up front, cash that we don’t have. The officer will have seen down-on-their-luck nobles before, and know that it’s often worth-”
Aveline frowned. “Your name carries that much weight?”
Mum shrugged. “If one were asked to name five prominent citizens of Kirkwall, my brother would be one of them. Come,” she cast over her shoulder as she breezed towards the guard-post, leaving the three of us to blink in slight realisation and me to upgrade my potential future status from housemaid to lady-in-waiting and hurry after.
Of course, nothing is ever simple. There were far more refugees than we’d initially thought. The old slave-pens beyond the docks – and don’t get me wrong, they’ve been dockyards and warehouses and naught worse for longer than the Maker’s had a Chantry – they were full of Fereldans, now. The further we walked, the further we worried – it was looking more and more like they were letting nobody in at all – and the more my mother looked like she was convincing herself right along with us, that her family name would be a magic spell every bit as potent as Flemeth’s.
This place was made to keep people in. Big gates, big (dark oppressive awful looming) walls, precisely one way out: I’m sure the people who decided to stick all the refugees here will point to the still-functioning Tevinter fountains and say that they’re housed here out of compassion, but they’re fooling nobody. The refugees are here because the city thinks us dangerous, and this place is little better than a prison.
But, well, in theory at least, we had a ticket out of there. I couldn’t read the uniforms, of course, but Mother didn’t miss a beat; the ranking officer was short, broad and unprepossessing, and I couldn’t help noting Aveline’s comment about kickbacks in relation to the big orange horsehair plume on the little man’s helmet.
“What you after?” The accent unfamiliar, short-coupled and quick, the tone less than sympathetic. It’s like he’d had fifty sob stories this morning already. “For the Maker’s own last, the way is shut. If you didn’t think to come provisioned, there’s air and water and sunlight and floor and the way out and nothing more.”
Mum just looked down her nose at him, for all he was an inch taller – just the way she was standing and her expression and bearing, it’s like something had stolen away my mother and left this noblewoman in her place. “Funny way to treat a citizen, Lieutenant.” Her accent when she spoke was a little quicker, a little sharper, a lot less polite than the one I knew well. “Your name?”
“Who wants to know?” He raised his eyebrows, clearly expecting fast talk and lies.
A slight change in my mother’s expression conveyed that a failure to recognise her was permissible in a mere lieutenant. “Leandra Amell. These three are with me. Your name, man, or I’ll have my very own trouble trying to thank you for your good memory.”
The lieutenant’s mouth turned up at a corner. “Forgive me; it’s my poor eyes. Dathan Weft, m’sera: lieutenant of the second shift. It’s more than my neck’s worth to slip my peg, even for a citizen, but I’ll be assured and bear your kin the welcome and glad at shift’s end. Until they can come to pick you up, might I offer you -” he spread his hand with an oily grin- “the hospitality of the Lord Viscount, his air, his water, his sunlight and his floor.” And with breathtaking rudeness the man turned away. “Have a fine day.”
But Mum ignored it, and so we followed, though she was frowning as we found ourselves one of the few unoccupied patches of the old slave-yard. “I suppose it’s no surprise that things have changed since last I was here.” She shot the lieutenant’s back a disagreeable look. “That post should be a young nobleman, or at the very least someone who knows manners. I wasn’t expecting him to leave his post, of course, but I was expecting his men to be all over one another to be our escorts, and I was not expecting Lower City slang in my face.”
“Perhaps Uncle Gamlen’s shadow is a little shorter than you recall?” Tobias put himself between us and most of the other refugees. (Aveline ground her teeth: her job.) “That was not the reaction of a man who thinks there’s a pot of gold under his rainbow.”
Mum smiled faintly. “Tobias, dear, I know you’re proud of your silver tongue, but if you’re going to use it here then you’ll have a care for local idiom. Talk about fairy-tales and pots of gold here and you might as well be turning up with a mabari hound on a string, chewing a stalk of barley.”
He coloured. “Are we truly that foreign, here?” A glance up at the wall that hadn’t the timing to be humorous. “I suppose the writing is on the wall.”
And, I don’t know. Something about his manner caught me the wrong way. I chipped in. “It is, Tobias. You’re not funny here. How about you button your mouth till you’ve worked out how to speak like a good little Kirkwaller noble?”
“Citizen.” Aveline bit the end off the word. “No such thing as a commoner or a noble here, right?”
“Quite,” Mum said. “The rules are over long: most people at this end of the city will know if they’re a citizen, how to treat one, how they’re planning to become one, and that’s it. I’m a citizen, and if you two had been born here then so would you be.” She nodded at Aveline. “One foreigner – clearly a bodyguard, hope this doesn’t offend – and two well-behaved quiet people I’m saying are my children, and it’s quite believable that they will take us for citizens with a home to go to. Three obvious foreigners, may they resemble me never so closely, and there will be the Maker’s very own barrel-load of complication. Yes?”
Tobias nodded. “Looks like it’s the strong and silent for me, then,” he said. In that guardsman’s damned accent and manner. I ask you!
It wasn’t so bad, for the first hour or so. The sky was blue and wide in a way you just don’t get much of in the south; compared to most towns, the place didn’t smell so bad, and while the fountains weren’t exactly beautiful, they were deceptively functional. The water might be streaming from the eyes of a weeping nymph, her shackled hands the basin of the fountain, but it was cold and fresh and plentiful. This place had once been designed to hold a lot of people, and even the scant comfort that it offered was better than that bloody ship.
But the stone was hard, and after a while the bright day was more harsh than glorious, and we’d neither blankets nor any more food with us. We’d taken the decision that a day or two without them wasn’t life-threatening, and exactly which of the other refugees would we like to deprive in the name of our own comfort? There’s no point talking about my own hunger and tiredness and hurt, the sting of the burns on my hand and my tongue and of all those little cuts and scrapes, about the hardness of that floor, because for everything – even for the burns – I could see someone who had it worse. And Maker forgive us, we hadn’t the energy to lift a finger to help.
As the sun started to dip below the walls and the courtyard fell mostly into shadow, there was movement around the gate. Not just the changing of the guard. A group of people coming in. Mum sat straight upright – no – not unless House Amell regularly dresses its manservants as –
I turned my face away, quick, hid my burned hand in my lap. I know. I know. There was no way they could have just seen it on me. A Templar can’t tell a mage from a real person unless they use the Gift. Not like I was the only girl here with burns. Still, there were half a dozen of them there, full arms and armour over crimson habits, guarding twice that number of people in the pale pink shapeless robes of low-ranking sisters, well laden. They turfed two families out of the way to set up whatever it was. A couple of trestle tables; a series of heavy baskets and sacks?
“Idiots,” Mum breathed, and she was on her feet in the same moment. “Aveline, we’re getting out of this square. Heading back to the docks. Now.”
Aveline looked at her blankly. “I don’t-”
Mum half-pulled her to her feet and leaned in close, lowering her voice to a hiss. I craned my neck to just about catch it. “Bread. They’ve got bread in those baskets. And only half a dozen guards. And there are five hundred starving people here.”
The soldier blanched. “Riot,” she whispered, and a shiver went down my spine; my brother and I were on our feet nearly as quick as her.
But as we were moving I heard a holy-woman’s clear sweet voice over the crowd. “And Blessed Eileen spoke unto the masses.” I knew that verse from almsgivings in Lothering chantry – our time was running out. “My hearth is yours,” she said, and I could see other people standing up as the quicker among them worked out what she was saying. “My life is yours,” she said, and people were talking to one another and beginning to push their way forward and – yes. We were not going to make it out of there. “My bread is yours,” she said, and the word was suddenly on everyone’s lips, and my own body took that moment to remind me that indeed, I hadn’t eaten for how many hours? “For all who walk in the sight of the Maker are one,” the verse ends. But I couldn’t hear the end of it over the sound of people realising that the sisters had food with them.
There was no way we were going against that flow. Tobias grabbed my wrist, his fingers tight, and I realised what he was doing and grabbed Mum’s, and my burned hand hurt to do it but it was what it was. Aveline, arm still in that improvised sling of hers, decided she’d rather have a free hand; almost bodily we were carried along by the crowd as the people surged forward.
I heard another woman’s loud voice at the front of the crowd crying for some order, that all would be fed in their turn, and roughly speaking she was ignored completely. The mood of the people wasn’t so much aggressive – it was just that here they were, starving, and there was bread over there. And there’s an extent to which basic human dignity extends, and there’s an extent to which half a thousand starving people are going to look at someone waving food at them and go right for it. There were people on all sides of us. There were people pressing in on all sides of us. Fear was creeping down my spine.
The noise of the crowd rose. It was all starting to blur together. A woman screamed. A man raised an angry voice. The bone-chilling ring of a sword clearing its sheath – what the hell did those templars think they were doing? – and the raised voice again, and I felt it resonate in the bones of my ears and the back of my head and somehow I knew that everyone in the crowd was hearing it just as I was. Whatever the templar had used, whatever she’d done, she’d managed the impossible – just for one moment, her words were able to reach each person in the crowd individually and personally. Just for one moment, she’d cut the noise with one clean stroke.
It’s a shame the idiot wasted it.
“GET DOWN, INGRATE SCUM!” I felt Tobias’ fingers clench convulsively on my wrist, saw my mother wince. “BY ANDRASTE I SWEAR!” The woman’s voice was a bone-penetrating snarl. “THE NEXT ONE OF YOU SONS OF DOGS TO RAISE A HAND AGAINST THE MAKER’S CHOSEN SHALL TASTE MY STEEL!”
Aveline reacted in the instant most people wasted screaming and yelling, grabbed Mum abruptly by the wrist and started to pull us sideways through the crowd, to try and get us out of it, Mum and me in the middle of the line, her on the one end, Tobias on the other. Some people were trying to do what they were told, some to get away, some to get at the food, some to get at the Templars – I swear, my homeland does not breed them clever – the result was utter bloody chaos. Every time the crowd moved, we had to move with it or be swept from our feet. Every time it stopped moving, we moved a little closer to the edge.
Except that at this edge of the crowd there was the wall. We kept our heads down and concentrated on keeping our feet. Half a dozen times a shock ran through the crowd and one of us stumbled and the others pulled them up. Half a dozen times the crowd pressed us against the wall, for a moment the intolerable stinking pressure of Maker knows how many terrified bodies, before the pressure eased as suddenly as it came leaving us gasping. The crowd was a wall of noise, humanity turned animal, the mob as raging insensate beast –
It ended, eventually.
This is how.
The crowd seemed to take a breath, to sway away from us like a wave, and then to slam us hard against the wall and to continue to push.
And I lost Mum’s hand. It just slipped my grasp. One moment there were four of us, the next there were two. I screamed, or near as – the pressure was too much, I couldn’t breathe, I tried to drop to my knees but it did no good, I curled into a ball, I screwed my eyes shut and I did the unthinkable.
I wanted it all to stop.
Or rather – I wished it all to stop. I willed it to be done with. Almost involuntarily I gathered the will that had swept the bad dreams out of my dream-cottage and it was all so terribly easy. You must never make magic like this. Don’t do this. This is a bad idea. And for the second time in my life I was lucky, I was so very terribly lucky. I guess we all were.
Softness, dizziness, the pounding of my own heart in my ears, a flurry of pins and needles, and the sensation of overwhelming pressure suddenly, quickly released. And it went through them like a scythe, a wave. It could have been fire.
They fell. Everyone. Every single person fell, like for that one instant their legs wouldn’t function quite the way they wanted to and something just pushed them neatly apart from one another. You’d have thought they’d have fallen on top of one another, that they’d all have been crushed. But while I heard the unseen force impact on the far wall of the place, like a wave slamming home against the rocky shore, it’s funny how everyone who could, fell into their own little piece of floor just like the nice lady had asked. Most on their knees, some on their faces, all in terror. And the battered bloodied templars stood firm, and the sisters behind them, and I curled myself tighter against the wall and hoped –
The shock of the spell would only last a moment longer. A woman’s voice, cracked, the one who’d first started reciting the Chant, crying “Back!” A moment’s hesitation. “Now, curse it! Move!”
And the one that had spoken to all of us, the one who’d made it all a dozen times worse. Trying to be quiet, but the hard treacherous stone carried me the echoes of her voice: “You think that magic was us, mother? There’s a mage in here!”
“Aye? Well, he just saved our blessed necks. Move, Meredith.”
The templar – I sneaked a glance. Tall, ice-blonde, stone-faced. “No telling if it’s a man or woman.” She held out that drawn sword over the terrified crowd, her eyes searching, staring. “I will find you, apostate,” she said, as men and women in Templar red and Kirkwall orange alike retreated into the crack still open in the gate that was the only exit from the old slave-pens. “I will find you, and I will not forget your sin. You can run, maleficar. You can hide. But not forever.” And with that, she left in a swirl of red robes and the massive prison gate slammed shut.
A perfect comic beat later, Tobias looked sidelong at us. “Did I forget to cancel that order for a large ham?”
And you could legitimately have mistaken the noise I made for laughter.